As a Princeton undergrad in mathematics, Gene worked in the field of computed tomography to see inside an object without breaking it apart. In such applications as CAT—or CT—scans in medical imaging, 2-D X-ray pictures taken from several angles are combined through a mathematical formula to recover the 3-D structure. Gene investigated how to lower the radiation dose of CT scans without compromising the quality of the 3-D image needed to pinpoint location of tumors and internal injuries, or to guide surgery. CT scanners also search for hazardous materials in airports.
Another form of tomography concerns 2-D images produced by an electron microscope. Gene worked on single-particle reconstruction in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to achieve a 3-D picture of a large molecule such as a ribosome, the protein-making factory of a cell. He explains: “Seeing the structure of molecules is essential to understanding how they work and key to developing new drugs. If we are to design antibiotics that will attack certain bacteria, we need to know what both human and bacterial ribosomes look like so we target the latter without harming the former. The challenge is that some molecules can change shape and exist in several states. I made a big step toward overcoming this challenge by helping devise a way to analyze the cryo-EM data. It lets us learn how many shapes the molecule can take and helps structural biologists visualize each of them.” In graduate school, Gene will seek patterns in large datasets. “An avenue that excites me is statistical analysis of genomic data that could link genes with diseases.”
“All my work relates to real-world problems. The applied mathematician can contribute to technology for detecting tumors, deterring terrorist bombs on planes, and understanding complex molecules so we can make new drugs. I am thrilled to be part of the Hertz Community and to draw inspiration from its Fellows who make the world a better place through science and engineering.”